Mightier Than the Sword!
- Domestic dispute!
- By Roger Stern, Graham Nolan, & K.S. Wilson!
- From DC Comics's April 1989 cover-dated Power of the Atom #11!
Aside from being the fourth best Superman writer in the glory days of triangle numbering, Roger Stern is most known for his Marvel Comics work, especially a lengthy tenure on The Avengers. To my knowledge, he's been married once since 1982, no divorces, and he cannot alter his size and density with a belt composed from white dwarf matter. I therefore find this comic perplexing. You would think that spending an entire issue on the beef between Ray Palmer and the man his ex-wife committed adultery with would perhaps come from a personal place. Yes, Ray abandoned Jean Loring after discovering the affair, and she went on to marry Paul Hoben, who proved to be much more inclined toward jealousy and domestic violence. There's some interpersonal drama to mine there, and Stern is oft-acclaimed for finding the humanity in super-hero stories like "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" and "Under Siege." Yet, this issue is like a four color episode of Thirtysomething, which hadn't even been invented yet.
Two issues earlier, Ray and Jean had shared a hug in the kitchen, as Ray was still dealing with grief over the destruction of the alien tribe he'd joined, including his yellow-skinned rebound chick that didn't play at all like some sort of "gone native" post-Vietnam narrative. It was sort of a macho '80s "Eat Pray Love" with frog steeds; these jaundiced little people soothing the savage breast of a white boy in crisis, literally existing only so long as Ray needed warm bodies to stab with one implement or another. I don't know how long that hug in the kitchen with Jean lasted for, but both Jean's second husband Paul Hoben and Ray's prospective love interest Enrica Negrini managed to individually walk in on them and have baby breakdowns over it. One of them getting the wrong idea would be understandable, but for two separate individuals to come to the same conclusion, I think this may have been less Rashomon and more Fear of Flying. To paraphrase SisQó, Jong Y-Jong, Jong, Jong.
Both Enrica and Paul individually interrogate and instigate, feeding especially into Paul's deep insecurities, until he's hurling accusations of infidelity and donning a spare shrinking belt Ray had given him before returning to the Amazon in one of the Sword of the Atom specials. Most likely, this whole thing was an excuse to amend that bit of ill-considered continuity, but having Paul travel through a phone line to assault a sleep-deprived Ray Palmer was more a compounding than correction. Of all the shrinking characters, Ray is the only one that travels through phone lines, but now we get to add an asterisk "also his ex's side piece." Further, the fight starts on page six and ends on twenty-one. In a book that's been notably light on action, thirteen pages go to the epic battle between a super-hero and an attorney-at-law. Even with a host of handicaps, like Ray's only getting four hours sleep from spending the day studying Humbug's synthetic skin, or not wanting to hurt Paul, and being overconfident in handling Paul with kid gloves but still, that's... a lot of pages. Surely an untrained fighter using a shrinking device for the first time time could have been subdued with a quickness, but instead things escalate from home invasion and assault to attempted murder when they begin to sword fight with a busted pair of scissors.
Ray has a 'Nam flashback and almost kills Paul while seeing him as a Boundsman of Morlaidh, just as police show up to investigate. Regardless, it's played as Paul was being a big dumb jerk who tried to wreck Ray's lab and cut up the Humbug skin over a silly misunderstanding. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here in 2023 wondering why Paul wasn't even a suspect in Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis. They could have dubbed him "Red Flag" and had him team-up with Buzz Baxter in DC vs. Marvel. But also, the same Jean Loring that told Paul that if he left the house with the belt, he shouldn't bother coming back, then drove partway to Ivy Town in a sheer nightgown with a cutout from the cleavage to the navel held together by fishnet. Girl could get arrested running around like that, and did, when she got busted speeding with "I'm a super-hero's ex looking to break up a fight in my négligée" as her excuse. Grrrl, you all about that drama. Ray and Paul had to phone into the police station to get her released, with a sad little panel of Paul surrendering the belt for bad measure.
Returning to the opening quandary, who was this for? Was there a little seven year itch in Rog's life he was working out in print? Was he writing what he knew, or was what he knew the loosey-goose handling of domestic violence from period network television? Stern thankfully, blessedly takes the next couple issues off, returns to wrap up some storylines for another couple issues, and then abandons the troubled series he launched to die three issues later. Was this issue just vamping to fill space and sorta kinda not really resolve a subplot? Didn't this book launch on the premise that The Atom was returning to super-heroics in a Post-Crisis bold new direction that would see him pursuing the shady government faction responsible for destroying Morlaidh for reasons unknown? A year later, and the series is about negotiating book tours and resolving marital strife? If this was a series Stern was writing for himself, reflecting his life, what he really needed was couples counseling. If he was writing for the market, it's no wonder work started drying up in the '90s, with the Superman titles continuing to serve as a de facto welfare state. "Hey buddy, the comic industry doesn't have pensions, but we do have Action Comics. Want to write by committee a weekly adaptation of ABC television's Lois & Clark for half-a-dozen years? I think maybe it's the lead-in for Thirtysomething? Boy, I sure like me some Timothy Busfield dramedy." There was a whole article in Amazing Heroes #162 about course-correcting this title after Invasion! to be more action-oriented, but we're right back into The Big Chill with aging boomers crying about their Ivy League educations and publisher's advances and having to choose between a genius scientist and a lawyer. I guess somebody thought that was an audience worth chasing, but it was stinkin' thinkin'.
Jean Loring,POTAcast,Power of the Atom,Ray Palmer,